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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

I don't understand poetry

It's time for another writing class update! Tonight's lesson was an introduction to writing poetry. I've always assumed I'm only capable of producing daft poems (which are apparently better known as "light verse")... while posh poems (the ones that use clever words and imagery to talk about feelings) are probably not the sort of thing my brain can cope with.

One of the poem we read was "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams. It's very short, with lots of line breaks. Here it is:


So much depends
upon

A red wheel
barrow

Glazed with rain
water

Beside the white
chickens


Whenever I read something like this, I imagine it must be full of deep, meaningful, wonderful things that I'm simply too dumb to understand. Other people think it's great so I can only assume I'm missing something. The poem's considered one of Williams' most important works. It has the honour of having its own wiki page (!) and was recently used as a title for an episode of Homeland so it obviously still resonates with modern writers. What I never understand about poetry like this, however, is why it's been picked out as something for literary types to point and nod intelligently at, while other poems (that sound similar, to my ears) are dismissed as "trite". In this respect, as someone in the class pointed out, poems like this are a lot like Jackson Pollock's splatter paintings: the arty types tell us they're amazing, but there will always be someone (probably me) standing there saying "a five year old could do that." Perhaps it only counts as "art" if you're the first person to get noticed doing it?

So what do I get from "The Red Wheelbarrow"? I'm not a literature student so I don't know what to say, but here's a few thoughts:
  • I can see the poem paints a very specific picture, and I'm guessing most readers will find their mind conjuring up much more than just the wheelbarrow and the chickens (because it's not a huge leap from that image to seeing the entire farmyard). Any writing that creates a strong image in the reader's mind is definitely doing a good job... but I can't help feeling it would be nice if something actually then *happened* with that image. What holds the reader's interest after he/she's looked at this pretty little farmyard scene? Is the wheelbarrow full of human skulls? Is one of the chickens hiding a Kalashnikov under its feathers? Where's the action?!
  • The line breaks are interesting, I guess... they change the meaning as you read, e.g. you see "the red wheel" and your imagination conjures that image, then you reach the next line and have to adjust your mental image to "the red wheelbarrow". But does that count as clever? Or is it just odd?
  • The first line is a good way of making you read on, and I suppose you're left wondering why the wheelbarrow is so important. So is that the secret to good poetry? Leaving everything open-ended so that literary types can sit and discuss meaning/symbolism for hours on end?

Anyway, the lesson was fun and I think I learned something... but I'm still very confused!


The chickens are confused too


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